Syd Mead reckons it’s “specious folly” to propose bicycles as a serious component of urban transportation. There’s “an almost messianic insistence that bicycles should be part of the urban travel mix”, he says, but the notion cities can be “liberated from the car … has zero basis in practical terms”.

Before entering the ranks of the infamous, Syd Mead was famous as a futurist and conceptual artist. He’s credited with designing city backgrounds and vehicles for Blade Runner and other sci-fi films.

According to Mead, bicycles aren’t a serious mode of transport because they’re limited by weather, terrain and the health of riders. Further, they’re not much good for the long trips involved in city living and they’re dangerous when used on roads. Cyclists flout road rules (he calls it “eco elitism”) and slow the progress of drivers. Moreover, bike lanes reduce road capacity for cars:

“Imposing bicycle accommodations onto an existing vehicular culture and street alignment is prohibitively complex and preposterously expensive on a per-mile basis. Given the relatively small number of commuters who would use such lanes in comparison to car drivers, any cost/efficiency formulae that purport to justify such infrastructure enter the realm of pure fantasy.”

Mead should’ve visited China in the 1980s before the arrival of cars and witnessed for himself how effective the bicycle can be as a mass transportation system. He should travel to The Netherlands and Denmark to see that it’s possible for bicycles to achieve a remarkably high mode share in a developed country.

Of course none of that would carry much weight with him because he’s implicitly comparing cycling with driving. He’s also judging the utility and potential of bicycles in the context of US cities, where, with a few exceptions, urban form and structure have been shaped by cars.

Most importantly, he’s framed his argument as either bicycles or cars. His contention that “urbanistas” propose bicycles as the “transportation of tomorrow or the saviour of cities” is a straw man of his making.

The proposition put by planners isn’t that bicycles can out-compete cars for all trips at all times in all cities within “new world” countries like the US and Australia. Rather, it’s that bicycles can be an important part of transport policy, especially in relatively dense urban areas where car use is limited by traffic congestion and the cost of parking.

In these sorts of locations they’re competitive with cars in terms of travel time, and sometimes they’re decidedly quicker. Most urban car trips carry one person (the driver) and are well within the range of an average cyclist — and in any event, the new generation of electric power-assisted bicycles reduces the impact of distance.

In fact, bicycles offer many of the advantages of cars. They’re private, so, like cars, they’re available on-demand and go directly to the traveller’s destination. Cyclists don’t share their machines with strangers, either, as public transport travellers do.

It’s not the only one, but the main “driver” of a significant increase in cycling will be greater competitiveness relative to other modes. That “push” factor is already growing in the denser inner parts of US and Australian cities.

But it’s being held back by an unsympathetic infrastructure and regulatory environment. In particular, the limited provision of dedicated bicycle paths separating cyclists from motorists is a major deterrent to the “next cohort” of cyclists taking to the streets (who’re likely to be different to current riders).

Dedicated on-road paths are cheap to construct and have the capacity in congested conditions to move more travellers than an equivalent car lane. Providing a comprehensive network of safe cycling routes is the key to attracting the next cohort of riders.

Cycling doesn’t have to “defeat” the car to have a major role in transport within urban areas. Even public transport only accounts for a modest proportion of trips in most US and Australian cities. For example, even with a well-developed rail and tram system, public transport accounts for around 10% of  all trips in Melbourne.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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